Women into Construction (WiC) is a not-for-profit organisation that was born from the push for more women to get involved in the construction of the 2012 Olympics a decade ago. It has since developed into a successful and influential force in the construction industry, one of many organisations helping the shift to a more gender balanced STEM world. WiC also features in our eBook Get Girls Into STEM, which is free to download. We had a chat to Kath who has been involved in Women into Construction since its inception, alongside being involved in the construction industry herself since a young age. Kath was a real pleasure to chat to and an inspiration for women wanting to get into STEM.
Hi Kath! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
It’s absolutely fine!
First things first, I’d love to learn a little bit more about your background before going into Women into Construction. So, you started in carpentry?
Yes, that’s right. I trained as a carpenter when I was 19 and worked onsite for several years and absolutely loved it. It really suited my personality; being active and outside. But also the satisfaction that comes from building something and changing your environment.
Was this something that you were always interested in?
Yes; I’m a very practical person. Before I trained as a carpenter I worked as a baker but I didn’t have any training. I then I went off and did some travelling, and when I came back and tried to get another job as a baker, I found that I would be earning less money than before and so I decided to get some training in something and carpentry was really attractive to me. The idea of actually using a material to change my environment – and to build something that would last.
Following on from that, what did you do?
I worked on site for several years, but was always the only woman on site. I then set up my own business for a while, and then went into teaching carpentry. All the time I thought: this is such a great industry, but where’s all the women? I thought that they would find out and be along soon but that never happened. When I was teaching I found that the women in the class – and there would only be one or two of them – would be really good and do really well but at the end of the course it would be the guys that would get the jobs and it made me realise how difficult it is for women to get jobs in these industries.
Then an opportunity came up to set up a project on the Olympic Park to actually look at gender diversity and develop a programme that would help women get into the industry. So I thought: oh yes! This is something I want to be part of. So I joined.
Women into Construction
So it [Women into Construction] started off as a project, is that right?
Yes, that’s right. Originally it was just a three year project and the Olympic Delivery Authority were asking questions like: Do women really want to do this? Will they be any good? Will they fit in? I knew the answer would be yes to all of those and, of course, once there were opportunities there, women did really well. We more than doubled the number of women working in construction on the Olympic build. Most importantly, we changed the culture. It was much more acceptable to see women at all levels.
So after the three years, then what happened?
It was July 2011, and for us, the Olympics was over because all the stadiums were built. We then went back to our funders and said to them: “Look, we have an established programme here which we know works, we’d like you to continue to fund us and to see how it goes.” So that was the start of Women into Construction as an independent organisation working across London.
And that was yourself leading that with people from the project?
There was one other from the Olympic project. For a long time there was only two of us. We set up as an independent not-for-profit organisation in 2014. We started operating in 2015 and were then in a position to take people on and fundraise. Last year we started working in Birmingham and the West-Midlands, which is something that we have wanted to do for a long time.
We found that working with a large project in the same way as the Olympics worked really well as there are obviously a lot of jobs there but also a lot of contractors, and a client who wants to address diversity in all its guises, giving us a sound basis to work with the contractors. So we went on from the Olympics to the Shard, Crossrail, HS2 and Tideway – which is the biggest engineering project in Europe at the moment. They have set a target of 50% women within their management organisation and they want the contractors to follow suit.
When you say you work with them, how is that relationship established? What is your role in projects?
So first of all, we have full support from the management from the very top which filters down to the contractors. The work that we do is with the contractors; we are there looking for job opportunities, but also training and work placement opportunities for our women. Our work-placement scheme supports women that have being doing training but have not got into work yet, helping them to get some good site experience, applying the skills that they have learned in college and increasing their confidence. We think placements are really important. We have found that more than 50% of the women that do work placements, even if they’re not quite ready for a job yet, get a job pretty quickly afterwards.
That sounds awesome. So you’ve now gone into Birmingham?
Yes, which is great. We have close links with UTCs in the West Midlands and we are now on the HS2 project which is in both London and Birmingham, joining them up nicely.
Are there any other locations that you’re planning to venture into in the near future?
Yes. It all depends on funding but we would love to move into the Manchester area. Also, Wales and the South West as there is a lot of construction going on there. From our point of view, there is only ever a point in developing a project if there is a lot of construction going on. There is no point banging the drum for women in construction if there is nothing being built and there’s no jobs. Our focus is on following the big projects, which has really worked for us. HS2 also have a very large focus on diversity and want to make sure that people with all the protected characteristics have opportunities. They’re really good as they’re taking the bar even further so they are piloting flexible working and also blind CVs for selection.
I think blind CVs are a great idea. The danger is that often people don’t think that they are being prejudice and it’s a very subconscious thing so by taking measures, like blind CVs, it will just ensure that there is no prejudice – whether it’s active or passive – going on. Do you agree?
Yes, exactly. So we are delighted to be working alongside them. The work we do is very practical. They have the policy and aspirations, and we are here to actually make it happen and work alongside the contractors. They have a client saying “we want you to do this” and the contractors are saying “how the hell do I do that?”. We are there to say “we can help you.”
If you were to explain in a nutshell how you help women wanting to go into construction, what would you say?
We give them realistic advice about where they are now, where they want to get to and how to do it. We have short construction related training that is free for women. And then we work with them to help them find a work placement and potentially a job within the industry.
How would someone be able to get involved in that?
What advice would you give a woman who is wanting to get into construction?
One of the issues with construction is that people don’t really know what it involves and the breadth of opportunities that there are. Any opportunity that’s in the wider world is also in construction. Construction also has HR departments and legal departments and accounts and IT.
I’m not really familiar with those, the one that I’m familiar with is the actual construction. And I would say to any young women that is thinking about going intro construction that if you want to do a 9-5 where you do exactly the same thing every day, go to the same office for 40 years and retire – don’t go into construction. Construction is far more interesting than that; it’s project-based, you’re part of a build and that can be really exciting and fulfilling – you feel part of something big.
I feel part of the Olympic build. I feel like that’s my Olympics. When I go down there I think: that’s my stadium. But so do 20,000 other people who were involved. There is huge satisfaction in it. It’s well paid because it’s a traditionally a male-dominated area of work. Also you’re learning all the time because methods of construction change and if you like that, then it makes it really stimulating. I would say: go for it!
We’ve been doing a lot of research and writing recently in trying to get more girls into STEM. What are your opinions on what needs to be improved in society when it comes to this. Do you think it starts at school, just general socialisation at home or…?
All of it. Yes.
The more you look into it, the more scary it becomes because it seems very ingrained in a culture that is very established early on.
What’s your opinions on where we can go from here? It’s a big question, I know, but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on it.
Yes, it’s a big question but we just have to chip away. We need more female role models and we need girls to be encouraged at school to think more broadly – to really look at themselves and where their strengths are.
And not to be afraid of STEM subjects. I know that when I was at school everyone seemed scared of subjects like Maths and Physics…
I think with organisations such as yourselves popping up – I think that really helps.
Thanks so much for the chat Kath. The work that you and your colleagues are doing is changing the landscape of the construction industry so please keep it up. And congrats on the MBE!